Christopher Lee (1922-2015)
Some years ago now, I forget how many, I was invited to present at the Sony Radio Awards; I forget to whom and for what. I remember being slightly irritated because it was years after the first McAlmont & Butler album, yet they played Yes as I approached the podium to present the gong as if I had done nothing since 1995. That night I was seated at a table with Paul Gambaccini, which was lovely, but I had already met Gambo on several occasions. Suzi Quatro was also seated at that table; she was very funny and sent me up when I asked Paul if he had heard my new album. None of these aspects made the occasion that special for me.
The special moment had happened earlier at the champagne reception in the lobby of the hotel. I turned around to see who was there, as you do, and spotted an extremely tall, elegant, grey haired, bearded gentleman in tasteful tweeds chatting with some people. I was thunderstruck because the tweedy entity in question was a bona fide legend, none other than Mr Christopher Lee. I promptly excused myself from the conversation I was having and shot over to meet him. It was too good an opportunity to miss, even though I didn’t know what to expect. Alas it was not the selfie era, alas because this would definitely have been selfie o’clock!
I charged over and barged in as courteously as possible and said, “Excuse me Mr Lee. Sorry to interrupt your conversation, but I just had to say hello because I’m a huge fan.” Then I received another shock: he turned to me in the warmest manner and boomed, “Oh, so it was you?” The inference being that he wasn’t aware that he had that many fans. I laughed and said, “Yes. I’ve been a fan of yours since I was a kid. My mother let me stay up to watch your films.” After which he said “Thank you” and asked if I’d heard of Lord of the Rings, which I had because I had recently read The Hobbit. He said that he would be appearing in the new film playing one of the wizards, “Oh great! I shall look forward to that.” I said. “The evil one!” he added. I laughed and said something like, “But of course you are.” And politely excused myself so that he could continue his conversation, wishing that my mother could have been there to share my giddy thrill.
Thanks to my mother I was introduced to his films as a child. My mum was a diehard horror fan: she gorged on the Star and Fontana books of horrors; encouraged my sister and I to purchase Uncanny Tales comic books, which she probably read when we were at school; and she owned the first complete works of Edgar Allan Poe that I ever leafed through. She let my sister and I stay up to watch Supernatural (1977) and all the American International, Hammer, RKO horror pictures that aired late at night. I remember enthusing about the films at school, often to the bemusement of my fellow pupils. I recall enjoying the RKOs and the American International Cormans, but not finding them as captivating or nearly as frightening as the Hammers.
The Hammers had the bloodcurdling James Bernard scores, which sounded as if the violins were being bowed with rib bones accompanied by brass sounds rigged up to foghorns. They had the evocative Eastman colourisation, dodgy, alcoholic men of the cloth, buxom tarts who were just asking to be gnashed in the jugular, cocky- sometimes decent- young lotharios, the dashing, electric blue-eyed Peter Cushing and of course Christopher Lee.
It was his perpetual appearance as Dracula that would stay with me: his fresh menace as he became newly transmogrified by blood stirred into his ashes; his hissing malevolence at men who attempted to protect their women; his ability to transform comely debutantes and reactionary hausfraus into wanton sirens; his athletic grace in his fluttering, full length, black red-lined cloak; and his unbridled howling agony when sunlight, water or the shadow/glint from a crucifix hindered his progress or halted his reigns of terror. Yet, he kept coming back long before Schwarzenegger in The Terminator series ever did.
Evidently, I was not the only youngster enthralled by the Dracula Lee: it explains the renaissance for the star in his many collaborations with Tim Burton and Peter Jackson in the last fifteen years; Gandalf had it going on in the Lord of the Rings series (2001-2004), but Saruman was properly badass, nobody could have opined “A great eye, lidless, wreathed in flame,” quite like him. Even George Lucas got in on the action of the nascent, latter day Lee by including him in his Millennium Star Wars series (2002/5/8). How many octogenarian actors have had the honour of going sabre to sabre with none other than Lucas’ Yoda?
As recently as last year I watched all the Christopher Lee Draculas again in preparation to review a theatre production in Colchester, which I was unfortunately unable to make. I still have those nights where a Lee Dracula is the only thing that will do. I have bonded with more than one romance upon the discovery that we had a mutual Hammer appreciation. And it wasn’t only Lee’s Dracula characterizations that held the attention; his performance as Duc de Richlieu in The Devil Rides Out (1968), a film increasingly daft with age, still demonstrates an actor treating camp material with a degree of respect.
His celluloid villainy was much sought after and justly rewarded with one of the most iconic Bond baddies, Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974); controversial because the source character was black, but mercifully Lee didn’t “black up” on this occasion; it was still a period where, shall we say, more ethnically appropriate talents might be overlooked in favour of white actors in makeup- The Face of Fumanchu (1965). Even in Gremlins II (1990)- yes Gremlins II- he stood out, as a sinister scientist, Doctor Catheter of course, in which the director or budget missed an opportunity to have his character morph into a half man/half-gremlin. In The Wicker Man (1973), one of most self-respecting horror fans’ all time favourite horrors, and one of the most unforgettable horrors ever crafted, he created an appropriately unforgettable villain, Lord Summerisle, laird of the fictional Summerisle. In the right hands he was bloody good.
It has been said by many actors that screen longevity has more to do with charm than talent, and if my brief encounter with Lee was anything to go by he had it in spades. Every year my love of horror seems to unearth another Lee film that I have missed, The City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel (1960), for example. If you cast an eye over Lee’s filmography, he took barely a handful of years off once he had started making movies in 1948. The world record number of screen credits is held by an Indian actor Brahmanandam Kanneganti– over eight hundred. In the west, if you will, Christopher Lee died the daddy with over 276 screen appearances; eight decades worth of fans will issue RIPs on line in the coming days, which explains the 500,000 RIP tweets so far at the time of writing.
I would like to add one. RIP to an inarguable legend. Thank you for the shrieks.
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